Thousands of protesters gathered in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv for a third successive night Tuesday to demand that the government sign a landmark trade agreement with the European Union. Demonstrations were also held in other Ukrainian cities. Ukraine took Europe by surprise last week when it announced it was pulling out of the deal in favor of strengthening ties with Russia.
A succession of opposition speakers fired up the crowd gathered in Kyiv’s European Square Tuesday.
Among them was Yuriy Lutsenko, former Minister of Internal Affairs.
He said their plan is very simple – they require President Viktor Yanukovich to sign the EU agreement. And if he does not, says Lutsenko, they will block Parliament and force early elections to bring someone else to power.
Also backing the protests was former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko – leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party.
“I’m an optimist. And I hope that Ukrainians will want to show their will and wish to live in a European country with European standards of life. For that, we need reform. For that, we need to sign an accession agreement in Vilnius,” said Klitschko.
Thousands of students boosted crowd numbers at another protest in Independence Square – ground zero for Ukraine’s 2004’s Orange Revolution. Among them was Vitaly Sichinskiy.
“I want my children to grow up in a European country, with European rules and standard of life,” said Sichinskiy.
Alexei Androsky and his friends travelled to the Kyiv protests from the traditionally pro-Russian coal mining areas in the east.
“For 73 years we were under Soviet rule,” he said. “Then for 20 years we lived together with Russia. Right now we need 20 years to see how it is in the European Union, to allow us to decide,” said Androsky.
Responding to the protests Tuesday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Russia had asked Ukraine to delay signing the EU deal
Azarov said that Ukraine absolutely does not want to be a battlefield between the EU and Russia, a field of confrontation, and that it wants to have good relations with both the EU and Russia and to be able to develop through this.
Azarov added that President Yanukovych will attend this week’s EU summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
On a visit to Italy Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said a Ukraine-EU trade deal would harm Russia’s economy. But he denied European claims that he had pressured Kyiv into pulling out.
Putin said the decision with whom to sign an agreement for free trade is the sovereign right of Ukraine. And, he added, Russia will accept this decision whatever it may be.
The protesters vow not to leave Independence Square until Ukraine signs the agreement with the European Union.
Nine years after the Orange Revolution, the protest colors have changed to the blue and gold of the EU flag. But Ukraine has yet to decide if its future lies to the East or the West.
(The blue and gold flag of the European Union has replaced the Orange flags of 2004 in Kyiv. Photo: Henry Ridgwell/VOA)